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  INTERVIEW  -  Fractals for the European Research Area

An expert on mathematical physics, Jüri Engelbrecht – Director of Tallin Technical University’s Centre of Non-Linear Studies and Vice-President of the Estonian Academy of Sciences – played a key role in restructuring his country’s research system in the 1990s. It was an experience that led him to reflect on how a small country could find its place within the European Research Area and subsequently to his role as coordinator of the Association of All European Academies (ALLEA), a work and study group devoted to the subject.

Mandlebrot fractal image.
Mandlebrot fractal image.
What do you understand by ‘small country’?
Jüri Engelbrecht – A state that, due to the small size of its population, faces three problems in pursuing a science policy: a lack of high-level personnel, insufficient research funding, and weakness of scientific structures. These three problems then give rise to others that are perhaps not so evident, such as how to evaluate an institute’s research when it is the only one working in a given field. Or how to find the necessary funding for research linked to the national identity (its language, history, natural environment, etc.) – linguistics in Estonia or Hungary, for example. 

What then is the best scientific policy to pursue in such an area?
The best European example for me would seem to be Finland. In the early 1980s, the Finnish Government adopted a three-step R&D policy that it has applied steadfastly ever since. First of all, the development of the scientific sector as such, then the laying down of bridges between technological research and industry, and finally the integration of all this within a national policy for innovation. Financing for this policy came from a number of sources – the Finnish Academy, the National Technology Agency (TEKES), the Technical Research Centres, etc. – and it was evaluated by international experts. The results are there for all to see. During the 1980s, Finnish publications as a proportion of global publications increased from 0.65% to almost 1%. A high-tech and export-based industry, symbolised by Nokia, created tens of thousands of jobs. And Finland is now the European number one in terms of share of GDP invested in R&D and number of researchers per inhabitant – all of this due to the importance of private-sector research.  

Ireland, Austria and, more recently, Portugal, have drawn inspiration from this strategy. It is better for a small country to concentrate its efforts in fields where there is already a scientific and industrial tradition and to develop niches where it can be among the best. Quality must compensate for quantity. 

This is also the idea behind the strategy of centres of excellence that the EU has supported for a number of years now. This initiative helped resolve two problems of the new EU Member States: the insufficient international contacts and the shortage of a skilled workforce. The centres of excellence have proved to be very attractive to students and young researchers, offering them new prospects. 

Jüri Engelbrecht
Jüri Engelbrecht
How can these centres of excellence help to structure the European Research Area? 
There are a number of ways of envisaging a structure. In this case I would not see it as a kind of pyramid in which everyone, from the base to the summit, is involved in the same effort, or even as a kind of matrix in which every element in a line or column interacts with the others. I would see it rather as a fractal network, that is an irregular network of elements that all interact but in different ways. Applied to the European Research Area, this enables the various centres to have interactions of a different nature (interdisciplinary, interregional, etc.) and intensity (the best institutes interact more than the others) with their counterparts. That, in turn, enables small countries to exist and to be recognised.

What are the practical consequences of such a design?
As with fractals, it is the infinite repetition of the same rule that makes it possible to obtain structures that are both more stable and more complex. For a research system this rule is to support quality. By adopting as the principal rule support for the quality of research in all its forms (financing centres of excellence, training young people, etc.) and applying it steadfastly, we can create a European Research Area that is solidly integrated while also allowing for the diversity which is the source of our wealth.